Intel’s Optane business has been in the news for multiple reasons of late, as the company has expanded its product offerings and built out its product portfolio. One of the first uses for Optane drives that the company debuted was the idea of using Optane to create drive caches to accelerate conventional storage performance. Overall, the performance gains from doing so appeared generally similar to SSDs, though Optane was faster, on the whole. But now, as Optane gains strength, we’re seeing an interesting strategy from OEMs — selling customers a 32GB Optane drive, pre-integrated.
That’s the latest from Gigabyte, which has announced a lineup of Z370 motherboards that ship with an Optane drive preinstalled . Based on the ad copy and visuals, it appears that this is simply an M.2 drive preinstalled in the motherboard, not some kind of integrated, on-board storage that you can’t remove or replace.
As Gigabyte notes, the acceleration potential from adding an Optane drive is significant, at least compared with using no SSD or Optane at all. If you click through to the main landing page and note the “Core i7+” or “Core i5+” branding, that’s a new brand category Intel specifically created for companies to use when marketing Optane drives alongside motherboards or CPUs. The larger question is whether a Z370 customer is likely to still be using a hard drive in the first place. Maybe they are — but it seems a touch unlikely.
Optane: Intel’s Storage Lock-In
Intel has good reason to promote the use of Optane as a storage medium. Every dollar invested by a customer into Optane is a dollar effectively locking them into that platform for the foreseeable future. The effect is larger the larger the drive — customers that might not blanch at investing a few bucks in a small cache drive are unlikely to be interested in swapping an SSD. Now, is this essential to Intel’s plan? Probably not. The company has spent the majority of its cash and marketing thus far positioning Optane as a data center and business solution, not a consumer product. It’s also true that PCs aren’t the same focus for Intel that they used to be, and with laptop sales dominating desktops overall, capturing some retail channel customers isn’t going to be the driving impetus behind Optane as a category.
But just because Intel isn’t chasing those customers as the primary focus for the product category doesn’t mean they aren’t useful and valuable. Unlike an SSD, which can be taken from installation to installation fairly easily, an Optane drive is unique to Intel and doesn’t come with you to AMD unless you use the company’s StoreMI solution to create a cache Optane drive out of software (not something we’ve explored doing, but it’s technically possible). If you’re an Intel fan with no plans to switch CPU vendors, of course, this is scarcely a negative. Just be aware that when you buy into an Optane cache drive, you’re also buying into a storage solution that should mostly be considered Intel-specific — the existence of a software workaround for a specific scenario isn’t robust enough for us to change that evaluation relative to the value of just having a product that’s hardware-compatible with anyone’s platform.
Now read: How Do SSDs Work? and PCMag’s Best M.2 Solid-State Drives of 2018